tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS July 24, 2011 8:30am-9:00am PDT
>> hinojosa: last year police officers arrested more than two million american children under the age of 18. a disproportionate number of them were african american and latino. can this pipeline to prison be stopped? with us, juvile court judge leslie harris. i'm marihinojosa. this is one on one. judge harris, welcome to our program. >> thank you. >> hinojosa: so leslie harris, you serve on the juvenile court here in massachusetts. >> yes, ma'am. >> hinojosa: and i guess, before anything, i am sitting before a judge, so should i call you your honor?
>> in court, i'm your honor. >> hinojosa: okay, i hope i don't have to see you in court. >> no. outside i'm leslie. >> hinojosa: you're leslie. so we can do leslie. >> yes, ma'am. >> hinojosa: so you have a fascinating background. you grew up in chicago, on the south side of chicago. and you very easily could have become one of the statistics that we hear about-- dropout young black man ends up, you know, involved with the criminal justice system. you ended up in a very different place. you are now sitting on the bench, and you're looking at ese young people who come before you. tell me a little bit about how you made that transition from almost being a dropout to ending up as a judge. >> well, the dropout was easy. the assistant principal caught me and explained to me in none-too-gentle terms what he would do to me if i wasn't in school. but that was the '60s, and he could do that. >> hinojosa: and he actually said to you... he caught you going back into school because you wanted to go back for your band practice. >> yes. >> hinojosa: you had been cutting school. >> yes. >> hinojosa: and he caught you and he said... what did he say? >> he said he'd beat me, physically beat me.
and he didn't say it quite like that. he used some other language. but he got it across to me then. and i was afraid of mr. springs. he was one of those wonderful men who kept the school running. he was an assistant principal, and cared about us. >> hinojosa: and at that moment, you basi... you could have just said, "well, i don't care what vice pri... >> and just not come back to the school. >> hinojosa: and what made you say, "i've got to come back to school"? >> well, i had already had enough credits to graduate. i didn't understand the importance of an education at that point. i didn't connect that the people who were basically mentoring me were all college graduates. >> hinojosa: oh, so you mean, like, people, like, whether they were teachers or working at the school, you thought that... >> or in the community. >> hinojosa: you just thought that they were just... they just had great jobs because they had great jobs. >> yes. >> hinojosa: not because they had gone to college, or... >> never thought about it. you know, i had already applied to college, because friends of mine were applying to college. i had been accepted at northwestern and notre dame and
a few other colleges. but i was going to be a truck driver. i wanted to see the country. and... >> hinojosa: i don't understand that, though. i found that fascinating when i was reading your bio. you had said that you... being a truck driver, being a postal worker, would have been good enough for you. but at the same time, you were a good student, and you were accepted at northwestern university in chicago. >> yes, ma'am, and had worked as a student at university of chicago. but making the connection when you don't have... i didn't know what a ba was, or a master's degree. i was going to get a diploma, because i had never sat down with anyone and talked about what college really was. and it just... making the connections, understanding the importance of education and your future, wasn't quite there. now, lucky for me, some of my classmates were going off to northwestern, and they were friends. and so i said, "oh, i'll go to northwestern."
i even applied to the naval academy, and had met with my congressman, and i was a lieutenant colonel in the rotc. >> hinojosa: you were a good kid, and yet you could have easily just become a dropout. so when you look at these kids now who end up in your juvenile court, and they have dropped out... >> i understand now the connection. i understand what the difference is if you have an education and if you don't. because i've gone back to chicago. i've gone back to the projects where i grew up. i've looked for other friends who didn't go off, and they're not there. they're either dead or in prison or living bad lives, so many of them. and that frightens me, you know, because i know the connection between education and having a future. >> hinojosa: but how often, judge harris, does it happen where you know that you're looking at a really smart kid, and yet the kid doesn't get the connection? the kid thinks like you, like,
"school, somehow i'll figure this out." you know, "if i drop out of school i'll still be able to get a good job." how do you know when you've actually been able to make these kids understand that connection? >> well, you know, when you talk to kids, if you talk to young kids, they want to be doctors and lawyers and principals and teachers and all. and that's up to the third or fourth grade. when you talk to children in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, high school, they want to be football players, basketball players, mechanics, beauticians. and there's nothing wrong with those jobs if that's what you've always wanted to be. but it's really settling, in their minds-- "i'm not smart enough to do these other things." >> hinojosa: where are they getting that message that they're not smart enough? how come they're internalizing that? >> i believe, my personal... i taught third, fourth grade. and i believe that between third and fourth grade there's a transition from learning things to applying things. and when children start having to apply, and they start seeing their shortcomings, they start having doubts about themselves and start saying, "i'm not smart
enough to do this," or "i can't do this." and instead of us as parents and teachers and educators taking them and trying to say, "yes, you can," you know, "with this support and a little guidance you can make it," they don't always get that. and, you know, when we have a recession, when we start cutting things, the first things we cut are those services going to children. we cut the teachers, we take the music out of the schools. if they didn't have music in my high school, i wouldn't have been sneaking back into school to get caught. >> hinojosa: right, because you played on the band, and that was a big deal for you. >> a big deal, you know? and the very things that make children want to be at school besides reading, writing, and arithmatic is those other things-- the debate clubs, the drama clubs, the music. our kids don't learn music in the city anymore. only special schools have music. and it should be at every school. i keep hearing, like, in some countries it's a part of every
child's education. >> hinojosa: in fact, you have this really radical idea that you would love school to be taught from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm? >> yes. >> hinojosa: six days a week. >> yes, ma'am. >> hinojosa: and the... >> the difference would be children would want to be there, because it would be more exciting than not being there. teachers... we'd have two sets of teachers-- the morning teachers and the afternoon teachers. we'd have doctors there, we'd have the services that support children. if a child became pregnant, they wouldn't be put out of school. their child would become a part of the school. my belief is that we need to teach every child more than one language, that school should be fun. we have children... >> hinojosa: but how long, judge harris, how long have we been saying that, "school has got to be fun"? and yet the dropout rate is so high. >> we talk about leaving no child behind. but we don't meet the needs of children.
i never understood the mental health issues, the social issues that children were faced wtih until i became a judge and had to start addressing some of those issues. >> hinojosa: so paint us a picture of what we're not seeing, what we don't understand. i mean, you talk about mental health, and i'm like, "what is the mental health issue that we need to know about, our teenagers, our african american and latino teenagers?" >> our children have... well, when you get up in the morning and you're afraid to go to school, you're afraid to be at school, and then you're afraid to travel back home, it's got to have an impact on you. so just the fear that some kids deal with in their day to day living. but when your parents are struggling, sometimes a single mom is struggling, that impacts children. but there's also the adhd, all that alphabet that we label children with, and the medications that children are put on. and i have had many children who
are psychotic, who have severe mental health issues. and if we don't address these issues when they're small and young and able to get them under control so they can still learn, then we know what's going to happen to them when they're adults. >> hinojosa: but, so how... okay, you talk about some children who end up in your courtroom who are psychotic. but what's a typical kid... i mean, you're in that court... >> typical child that comes in our court comes one time. see, when we read newspapers and we hear about our children, we think that we have monsters on our hand, and we don't. most of our children got in a fight someplace, or got mad at a police officer for speaking to them in the wrong way. >> hinojosa: and the kid responded to the police officer? >> yeah, or, you know, just stupid things that most of us might have done as young people. see, if i were growing up now, first off i would have been put on medication, because i was disruptive in school.
>> hinojosa: you're a good student, but disruptive. >> yeah, i'd finish my work and mess with everybody else, you know? >> hinojosa: okay, so you would have been put on medication. >> i would have a record, because i had a fight in school. >> hinojosa: okay. >> and today, if you have a fight, instead of going to the principal's office, you go before a judge. >> hinojosa: which is really crazy. are you saying that across the country, when kids get into just regular fits in high school, it's not resolved by the principal? >> not every school, but the vast majority of the kids that i have... who have come in front of me for fighting, it's at school. >> hinojosa: and let me ask you this-- is it that most of the children who get caught fighting and who end up in front of you in the courtroom are african american and latino, and that if the fight happens in a different kind of a school... >> yes, ma'am, that's basically true. other schools have... still will suspend you or make your parent
come up to the school. we talk about zero tolerance in too many of our schools. and that has been interpreted as if you get in a fight, you're our, you're suspended, you're sent away to a different school. instead of having that child's parent or parents come up to school and addressing it in school, having that child stay after schol, or doing whatever you have to do to address it in school, they're taking it to courts. >> hinojosa: okay. but i'm sure that there are some parents who are seeing this who are saying, "wow, you know, i understand what the judge is saying, but if there's a kid who's fighting in the school, and maybe is..." >> if you're a repeat offender... >> hinojosa: oh, so you're just saying don't send them off in the first fight. >> the first... you know... >> hinojosa: give the kid a break. >> if someone has a child on the ground and kicking them in the head, or kicking them and all, they need to be in front of me or some other judge. but i had two young men in court, had a fight at school. they came to school, and one
parent was there. i said, "where is the other parent?" the one parent that raised their... i said, "no ma'am, you're here. i need the other parent." she said, "i can explain. he stayed the night at my house last night because we both couldn't take off from work, so i brought the boys to court this time. next time she'll come." i said, "wait a moment. what do you mean he stayed... they were fighting." she said, "they're best friends." that kid should not have been in my court. >> hinojosa: so they had gotten caught in a fight, and they spent the night together. >> yeah, you know? when the fight's over, they're still friends. >> hinojosa: so what are we not getting? >> we are letting... first off we're letting newspapers and tv define who our children are. they're making our children into monsters, and they're not. there are cases where the actions of children are monstrous. i'm not arguing that. and we have some horrific cases. but that's not the majority of children. and we should not set our rules,
our laws, our guidelines, based on those children. i understand that we have to have safe schools. and i am... my wife's a teacher, my oldest son's a teacher, i'm a former teacher. i want them safe in school, i want my grandchildren safe in school. that's not what i'm talking about. what i am saying is that we still need to go back to some of the old-fashioned, "you have to stay and do detention, you have to go clean up this room," or, "you have to do something," other than being put out of school. we have children who are learning disabled, who have ieps that say that they're special needs kids. there's laws that govern how many days they can be suspended from school. and people are not paying attention to those laws. see, teachers and principals are being evaluated. and they're losing their jobs because of what's happening in the schools. so they want to have a controlled school to show that they can run a good school. >> hinojosa: so it's all this kind of, like, one... a notch on top of another notch.
when these kids do end up in your courtroom, and you do have to see them and perhaps even pass judgement on them, what happens to these kids after they've been in your courtroom once? i mean, do you see that they are repeat offenders, or does this experience completely put a damper on their whole future? >> well, anytime you've been arrested, your future has been compromised. when you get... >> hinojosa: anytime. >> anytime... that footprint in massachusetts will follow you for the rest of your life. >> hinojosa: even if... as a juvenile? >> as a juvenile. >> hinojosa: isn't it supposed to be that if you're a juvenile your case is closed? >> well, they say that, but when you apply for certain jobs you sign a waiver so that they can get your total record. and that arrest... or when you apply to college now, some... the uniform college, the one on the computer, asks, "have you ever been arrested?" not convicted. "have you ever been arrested? please explain." so you have to explain away any
arrests that you have. and that's a big deal when you're talking about going to college. so to me, i want to keep children out of court. i want to keep them from being arrested so that they don't have to try to explain away an arrest. >> hinojosa: so when these kids end up in your courtroom... i know that i did a story a long time ago for national public radio where i uncovered that for kids now, and kids of all races, you know, going to jail is not one of those strikes against you. it's kind of like, "i went to jail, i'm a man now." >> yes, your red badge of courage, as i call it. one of the reasons i don't want children locked up is because they believe they can handle it, they adjust to it. they believe that they can do it. and they can say, "oh, man, i handled that." you know, "i'm a man," you know, "manned up," you know, whatever. no. prison is not the same as a
juvenile detention center. but i don't want these children going into the adult system. when we are successful, the kids don't get arrested and go into the adult system. i consider it a failure every time one of the kids we've had ends up in the adult system. >> hinojosa: judge harris, do you... do you find yourself, after you've spent a day on the bench, getting home and just thinking, "did i do the right thing, should i have let this kid go, did i do the right thing by sending him to a detention center?" >> of course. >> hinojosa: so you're always... >> i have reversed some of my decisions because i said, "wait a moment, there's got to be another alternative," sometimes. i mean, mostly when you make a decision it's after you have tried so many other ways to address... we try diversion programs, we try, you know, child on probation. the majority of the kids we end up locking up are those who have been on probation and have failed. very few kids come in, get
convicted, and get locked up. it has to be a gun or some serious crime to do that. most children come in, either they go into a diversion program ahead of time, or if they are convicted or plead, they're on probation. the problem is, most of these children lack the discipline to survive probation. one of the studies that they did years ago says anytime you put someone on probation for more than three years, you're setting them up to fail. this was an adult study, but i believe it applies to children even more. if you're going to place a child on probation and they survive two years-- i mean, that should be for a serious case-- without being rearrested, the odds are they're not going to come back to the court. >> hinojosa: so you have these kids' lives in your hands. did you ever imagine that you would end up... and when you sit on your bench, you're in, you know, your full court regalia,
but do those kids who come up to you, judge, look and say, "wait a second, he's got two diamond studs in his ear. what's up with it?" i mean, do you talk to them and you say... and you talk to them like, "i understand you," and they look at you like, "there's no way, judge, that you can understand me"? >> i've had one child tell me i couldn't understand because i was born with a silver spoon. i said, "you just talked yourself into an hour lecture." >> hinojosa: oh, my god, what happened at that moment? you didn't really give him an hour lecture from the... >> well, close to it. >> hinojosa: from the bench? >> yes, of course. >> hinojosa: and you had the whole courtroom listening to you? >> well, the people who work with me know me, and they all knew what was going to happen. you can't be late to my court, because i believe being on time is one of the things we need to teach children, and sometimes their parents. there's a consequence to being late. >> hinojosa: and what happens if they're late to your courtroom, judge? >> the first time it's a warning, the second time they go into custody and let the lawyer do an argument. most of the time i still won't keep them, but i'm letting them know that 9:00 means you're there before 9:00.
i did not invite them into this court, i don't want them in my court, but if they're going to be there, they're going to be there on time and be respectful and do what they have to do. >> hinojosa: well, there are some people who say, "okay, judge, well, it sounds like you're kind of hard-edged on this particular issue, but it seems like you don't necessarily want to sentence them, on the other hand." >> i don't want to lock up any child. in fact, we're working very hard to reduce the number of children that we lock up. >> hinojosa: and you have a program that's called the detention diversion advocacy project. >> ddap, as we call it. >> hinojosa: now, that project basically lets kids go back to school, be at home, they've got mentors. i ask the question, well, why wouldn't you send every kid who ends up in your courtroom who's, you know, a borderline kid, to the diversion project? >> first off, you have to have enough people to service them. ddap is intensive. the people who work with these children are on call 24 hours. they take them to counseling, they're involved at their
schools, they take them to sports events, they work with the parents, they're on call from the parents and the children as to need. you can't do that if you've got 50 kids that you're working with. you have to have a small caseload. >> hinojosa: so you're always having to triage. >> oh, yes. and the real hard part about this is that we know what works. this is not rocket science. we know that children who are busy and engaged don't come to court. if you have a child's attention, they're doing things that they enjoy, they don't have time to get in trouble. we don't get the kids who are at the boys and girls clubs, who are involved in tennis, who are involved in drama clubs and those types of things. most of the children, i ask, "what do you do after school?" "hang with my boys, i chill, i don't do nothing." you know, those are the children we end up with. >> hinojosa: okay, well, from the bench, what can you say to them? "i want you to get involved in tennis, i want you to start
playing softball," and they're looking at you like, "judge harris, please, i live in a really poor neighborhood." >> yeah, some neighborhoods have no activities. through programs like ddap, they get into activities, they find things for them, they get the counseling they need. they get the reassurance that they are somebody important. and that's why i find the program so important. >> hinojosa: but do you feel like you're just, you know, running, like sisyphus, just trying to get up that hill, and you' got all of this against you, you've got budget cuts that are going to influence, you've got, you know, the schools that are cracking down and cutting programs, and here you are, you essentially see these kids when they're about to go over the edge. >> one of the wonderful things about being a judge and living in the community is i see my kids. i run into them. the other day i ran into a guy, he's 20 years old, he said, "you were my judge, weren't you?" i said, "yes." he said, "well, i didn't get in trouble anymore. i listened to you," you know? and his girlfriend came out,
"judge, oh, you really saved him." you know, you get that once in a while. not all the time, but you get it. and it's what makes it possible to go back and deal with the other cases where you're not so successful. >> hinojosa: so give me a success rate, judge. what are we talking about? >> i have no idea. >> hinojosa: i mean, are we talking about... >> most of our kids are wonderful young people. the vast majority, i'm talking 95% of our kids, are just that-- children who were in the wrong place, or did something stupid one time or twice. you know, but really aren't bad. they're not out trying to hurt people. we have that small group of kids who keep coming back, who are our robbing people, intimidating people, who are violent. yes, ma'am, they exist, and we need to deal with them. but we don't need to throw them away. we need to take the time to try to change their lives. when you find out the history of some of these children, what
they have been through... >> hinojosa: and you... are you able to ask that from the bench? >> we do get... you know, we have a court clinic, which helps us. they do counseling, but they also do competency and criminal responsibility. dcs sometimes will give us a history about this child. and you see generation after generation of abuse. you see generation after generation of drug addiction. and then you say, "how did it take this child so long... >> hinojosa: to end up in front of you. >> ...to end up in front of me?" >> hinojosa: and when you see that case of that kid who's got a generation, or another generation behind him of this problem, how do you save him? i mean, do you believe that from you, sitting on that court bench, looking so authoritative, and at the same time being able to talk with them in a very honest, clear... on their level, how many of them are you able to actually get through? >> i think we get through to more than we think. i ask kids to give me their word. >> hinojosa: oh, i love that. and i'm sure there are people who are saying, "mmm, there's a
judge saying, 'give me your word.'" >> people don't understand. >> hinojosa: you want to give these kids a benefit of the doubt. >> they give you their word that they're going to do something like go to school. "give me your word you're going to be in school every day." i said, "i'll take your word the first time. now, if you don't do it, then we have to deal with that." i said, "but you give me your word as a person, talking to me, i'm going to take your word the first time." because that's what i would want people do to for me. i say, "i take your lawyers word." because most of the lawyers i know. i say, "if they say this is what happened, i don't question that. i want to be able to do the same thing with you." >> hinojosa: where is it that you get, judge, this notion... and i guess we'll just end here. you are hopeful for these kids. >> oh, yes. >> hinojosa: where did you get the notion of hope, and what is the hope that you want to leave us with so that when we see these kids we don't see monsters and potential criminals, we see hope? >> someone who had dealt with me as a child... i was told i'd never finish eighth grade. but people who had no obligation
to me, who did not know me sometimes, helped me. and i feel that i owe them, and i owe our children the same benefit. you know, it's not just my biological children i'm concerned about. i'm concerned about everyone's child. >> hinojosa: and thank you for all of your work, and for caring so much, judge harris. >> thank you for having me here. >> hinojosa: it's a pleasure. continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org